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Jumpstarting English

Book #6 (February 3, 2010): Lapsing Into a Comma by Bill Walsh
Book #7 (February 5, 2010): Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss

When I was in eighth grade, my English teacher was an angry, sadistic woman who drilled the class relentlessly in English grammar and syntax. The special punishment that she visited on us almost daily was diagramming, the deconstruction of sentences into branching trees that illustrate how the parts of speech fit together. She was the only teacher in all of my years of school that I genuinely hated, but not because of the diagramming. That was one of two things I learned in grade school that actually turned out to be useful. (The other was touch typing.) If it hadn’t been for that teacher, it wouldn’t be possible for me to be a writer today.

Now and then, though, my knowledge of English grammar and syntax needs a bit of a jumpstart. If I don’t take a periodic refresher course in how my native language functions, I start making silly errors and embarrass myself in public, using the wrong pronoun case with a linking verb or saying “bemused” when I mean “amused”. That’s why I promised myself a few months ago that I’d read some books on English usage. This week I bit the bullet and read a style guide and a book on punctuation. I feel much the better for it.

Bill Walsh is an editor at the Washington Post. I’d seen Lapsing Into a Comma on someone’s shelf at my last job and promised myself I’d get a copy someday. (I’m not sure that I’ve gotten a “copy” even now except in the electronic sense. I bought the book via Kindle for iPhone.) Although Walsh never quite calls it this, it’s a generalized stylebook for editors who work at publications that don’t have a style guide of their own. It’s a supplement to the AP Stylebook, covering topics ignored by that guide or presenting Walsh’s dissenting opinions. (Walsh, like any good editor, is a deeply opinionated fellow.) As with any style guide, it’s full of nitpicky details about things like the distinction between “loath” and “loathe” (which I’d completely forgotten). I will be forever grateful to him for suggesting that people give up writing the phrases “next Tuesday” and “this Tuesday,” because I for one never know what the hell they mean. And I’m thrilled that he wants people to write “mike” rather than the ridiculous abbreviation “mic.” (He also confirmed for me that — in the U.S., at least — all periods go inside quotation marks.) Occasionally the book seems to have been perpetrated as an act of revenge against wrongheaded copy editors who have committed botched editing jobs on Walsh’s own work (well, who can blame him?) and on some of his usage suggestions he’s probably in the minority, but at least he admits this and gives the arguments both for and against them. A few of his impassioned usage campaigns seem doomed to me, like his preference for “e-mail” over “email,” but his arguments for them are entertaining and readable. You probably don’t need to read this book if you don’t intend to write for publication, though personally I think it should be required reading for those of us who feel compelled to wax pedantic when someone commits a usage faux pas on the Internet. (Warning: It may turn out that the faux pas really isn’t. It is, for instance, perfectly okay to use “hopefully” to mean “it is to be hoped,” though many people seem convinced that it isn’t.)

Lynne Truss’s book is an extended love letter to (and about) punctuation. I started reading it a year ago and only got halfway through. (For those who fear I might be cheating on my promise to read 52 books in this calendar year, don’t worry. I started again from the beginning. I mean, it’s not like I can remember anything I read more than a couple of weeks ago.) I recalled it as having been more than a little padded out by Truss’s extended humorous riffs, like an essay bloated into a book, but I must have been in a better mood this time because much of what seemed like bloat now seemed quite charming. I mean, it’s hard not to like someone who would write a sentence like this one about the use of the comma: “Assuming a sentence rises into the air with the initial capital letter and lands with a soft-ish bump at the full stop, the humble comma can keep the sentence aloft all night, like this, UP, for hours if necessary, UP, like this, UP, sort-of bouncing, and then falling down, and then UP it goes again, assuming you have enough additional things to say, although in the end you may run out of ideas and then you have to roll along the ground with no commas at all until some sort of surface resistance takes over and you run out of steam anyway and then eventually with the help of three dots…you stop.” The style is breezy and very British. If you really know nothing about punctuation and want to learn the simplest rules, this is not the book I’d recommend. But it’s short and it’s fun and it eventually won me over.

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About Christopher Lampton

Chris Lampton, a cofounder of the e-book design firm Illuminated Pages (see link in my Blogroll), is a writer, an editor, an occasional computer programmer, a voracious reader, and a fanatic video game player. In the course of his distinguished if haphazard career he has written more than 90 books, including the 1993 computer book bestseller Flights of Fantasy (Waite Group Press). He lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend Amy and two cats, and now spends much of his available time editing and rewriting novels for self-published authors.

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